Myanmar Wa rebels in formidable show of force

  • ASEAN+
  • Thursday, 18 Apr 2019

Proud to serve: UWSA soldiers participating in a military parade in Wa State. — AFP

Panghsang: It has a standing army of 25,000, manufactures its own guns and conscripts at least one member of each household. Meet the United Wa State Army (USWA): Communist, reclusive, China-backed rebels determined to protect their supremacy over Myan­mar’s badland border zone.Thousands of soldiers, including a company of women and a sniper platoon in combat webbing, marched early yesterday alongside armoured vehicles in Panghsang, capital of the ethnic Wa, which borders China’s Yunnan province.

It was a show of force marking 30 years since Communist Wa rebels signed a ceasefire with Myan­mar leading to the establishment of a special, semi-autonomous zone, led by Bao Youxiang, chief of one of the world’s largest non-state armies.

This week, the normally inscrutable Wa extended a rare invite to foreign media to their isolated territory to show off their military prowess and deliver a defiant message of self-sufficiency within Myanmar’s borders.

“The Wa people are masters of their own destiny,” Bao declared in an address to the thousands gathered for the parade.

He vowed that his 600,000 “war-

tested” people would never be pawns in proxy wars and proclaimed the “builders and defenders of Wa” as “one of the best groups in human society”.

Fed by a ready supply of conscripts – some barely in their teens – China-armed and trained, UWSA is similar to Lebanese Hezbollah in size. Also like Hezbol­lah, they are clients of a larger state actor who pulls strings for strategic ends.

But UWSA also taps a deep seam of local pride and enmity towards the central state, which is dominated by the Bamar ethnic group.

Experts put UWSA’s strength at 25-30,000 regulars, backed up by a large, well-trained reserve.

Wa forces dwarf the collage of other ethnic rebel groups across Myanmar, posing a deterrent to the country’s Tatmadaw army and gifting Beijing a useful bridgehead into its resource-rich neighbour.

“We haven’t suffered fighting in decades and have developed over these 30 years,” a UWSA officer said.“But we need to be ready. Our leader’s motto is ‘Sweating a lot leads to a little blood’, so one or two people from each household must serve in the Wa Army.”

Once a Chinese enclave, the Wa became known by British colonisers as the “wild Wa” for their fearsome reputation for headhunting.

Since becoming a special region, the zone has undergone an economic boom of sorts. It is home to one of the world’s largest tin mines and massive rubber plantations.

Regional drug cops say it plays a central role in the Golden Triangle narcotics trade.

The Wa have long been accused of running a narco-state peppered with meth labs across their self-policed lands, which they deny.

“Poppy cultivation will never appear again,” said Bao, citing its eradication as one of his state’s “proudest achievements” and vowing to combat all drug production.

But independent analysis is impossible as Wa remains virtually locked off, resistant to outside visitors, ringed by checkpoints and tight internal controls.

As a trading gateway to China, the zone provides a point of leverage for Beijing against Myanmar and any potential resistance to its grand infrastructure and pipeline plans for the country. — AFP

The Wa have attended peace talks in a country lacerated by ethic conflicts, but so far remain outside a nationwide ceasefire deal. — AFP

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